Robot Uprising

In the aftermath of 2016 the world is coming to resemble a dystopia. Parallels with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are easy to come by, hence the book’s surge in sales over the past week. But aside from the more obvious rise of authoritarian governments there is a creeping apocalypse that has long been on the horizon: the rise of the robots. It first came to my attention in the morning email by New Statesman columnist Stephen Bush, who mentioned the ascent of Benoit Hamon as a presidential hopeful for the Socialist Party in France. Hamon’s campaign promise (as reported by Bush) is that the rise of robots will fundamentally change the world of work, necessitating a tax on robots and universal basic income.

The rise of robots is far from a new story. I first encountered it in the mid-1990s in the pages of Sonic the Comic. In an early storyline based heavily, I later realised, on the Terminator franchise, the Sonic-like robot Metallix travelled through time, changing history so that they ruled the planet Mobius without contest. But this storyline, those from which it was derived, and subsequent robot conquests such as The Matrix Trilogy are not quite the story that is playing out in the modern world. These stories posit that artificial intelligence will turn on its creators and overthrow humanity, either trying to wipe us out or using us as batteries. The robot uprising against which Hamon is fighting is the mechanization of the workforce. It is much more similar to the original robot story, Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots.

The 1920 play is not subtle. It begins with universal robots in use all over the globe as they dramatically reduce the cost of production. The robots were created by the elder Rossum in defiance of God; they were commercialised by his nephew to make money, though some allies dreamed to “shatter the servitude of labour”. But the robots, guided by the newly designed Radius, rise up against their creators. With the robot uprising underway, their creators lament the fact that they did not create “National Robots”, in different colours and speaking different languages, who would not have been able to unionize. The robots, having defeated the human race, continue to work without orders – it is, after all, their purpose.

Many of R.U.R.’s themes remain prescient. International solidarity has always been the stumbling block of labour movements, exploited by capitalists stoking anti-immigrant sentiment. It lies behind the U.S. and Canada’s celebration of Labor Day in September instead of International Workers’ Day in May with the rest of the world. More immediately, the ‘freedom from servitude’ offered by robots necessitates the universal basic income proposed by Hamon. But workers in the modern world are not only forced to compete with robots that can produce things at half the cost. The increased surveillance made possible by other advancements in technology mean that human workers must operate like robots and limit their human interactions – eating, resting, talking – as outlined in this article by John Harris. Again, only solidarity between workers and unionization can challenge these demands.

In R.U.R., the robots are workers, unionized, international, and thus threatening to their overlords. In the modern world, workers are forced to become robots or to be replaced by them, with their every action controlled by their employers. Like many other stark and horrifying visions of the future science fiction has to offer, this one is coming true. To challenge it, we must be universal, not national, robots.

How to solve a problem like Helena?

This post will contain spoilers for Orphan Black seasons 1-3, Buffy the Vampire Slayer seasons 3-9 (yes, including the comic book continuations to a point), and Angel seasons 1-4. And, it turns out in the writing of it, Being Human series 1-3 (the UK version).

I had originally planned to write this blog after the penultimate episode of Orphan Black season 3 (“Insolvent Phantom of Tomorrow”), but I watched it too late in the week and so I waited until I’d seen the finale. The finale doesn’t change much of what I have to say, although it does provide a fun quote and some additional material. What I have to say is this: Helena is becoming a problem. Here is why.

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Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Two preambles: I plan on keeping the first part of this entry spoiler-free, but the second half (where I will give a warning) probably will contain a few references to specific moments. Also, this blog will probably be a kind of “one of two” in that I might post some thoughts about the whole Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy later in the week. That will also probably contain spoilers for the whole thing.

I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises. But there were some problems with it, too. Unlike The Dark Knight there was no central performance which could blow you away; on the other hand Christian Bale is at his best in the series and Anne Hathaway is great, but somewhat underused. I always love Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but again I felt that he could have been a bit more developed. The best performance is probably that of Tom Hardy, in terms of ability to show his stuff (especially given the limitations on facial expression) and to have a character who is well-developed. Marion Cotillard also does justice to an important character whose role must be mostly confined to the boardroom.

The story has its ups and downs. As perhaps is likely in a film of this length it sags a little around the 1.30-2.00 mark. But it starts well and I would say ends well. It is less episodic than the previous Nolan Batman films, which I actually think is a weakness as at times the story feels stretched a little. Something which is mildly spoilerish that I want to say now is that this is perhaps the most rewarding to readers of comic books – The Dark Knight is similar to The Long Halloween, but I’m not sure that you gain anything in the film by having read it. On the other hand, The Dark Knight Rises may well be more satisfying to those of us who have read The Dark Knight Returns, and who understand where some of the features of the story come from.

That word, satisfying, is important. This has been called the end of the series, and it has to feel as such. In some ways it is the third part of a trilogy – as satisfying as Return of the Jedi I suppose. But others who saw the film with me were not impressed, and so I don’t want to speak openly and say that it will definitely satisfy you. I enjoyed it. But there are a couple of places where I feel we could have had more.

Now I am going to get spoileriffic. Not only for Dark Knight Rises, but also a couple of comic books too. You have been warned!

Let’s start with the thing which I found most disappointing about the film: Batman has sex! We’ve never seen this in a Nolan Batman film before, and personally I felt it was a bit weird. From his obsession with Rachel Dawes in the previous two films to his anguish over his parents and the whole Batman thing, you could almost believe that this Bruce Wayne was a virgin. But I think the thing which most dissatisfied me, and perhaps wrongly, was the realisation I had watching Casino Royale over the weekend: Batman doesn’t do guns, and he doesn’t (in Nolan’s universe) do sex; he’s not James Bond. Although there’s also probably the fact that if he was going to have sex with anyone I’d rather it had been Selina Kyle.

The five month siege of Gotham also seemed really farfetched. Why on Earth would the League of Shadows bother with this five month-long experiment in unevolved anarchy only to blow the city up anyway? Were they hoping that Bruce Wayne would come back and save the day? I suppose it could have been to make sure that he saw the city suffering, but I don’t really buy it.

On the other hand, I absolutely loved the misleading story about Bane being Ra’s al Ghul’s child and the final reveal of Talia. As an occasional comic book reader, sometimes, this should have been something which I would spot, but I didn’t and I was very impressed that I’d been misled on this point. Also, I really liked the Robin reveal too – we’d all been thinking it, but to include it in that way was a nicely cheesy reference to the character which could have taught the writers of Smallville a lesson or two!

I quite liked the end, although I admit that I had been expecting something similar. Adapting a couple of elements of the ending of The Dark Knight Returns (how do you dispose of a nuclear bomb without Superman? what end for the Dark Knight?) but really giving Bruce Wayne the clean slate he needed – and the implied relationship with Selina Kyle which some of us at least had wanted – was a nice touch. Perhaps it was a little too neat, and perhaps a more cynical view might have thought Bruce Wayne dying would have been a better ending, but I liked it this way. After all, an end to the legend of the Dark Knight is new territory, Batman having died (as far as I know) only twice, once faked and once actually trapped in another dimension or something. There were no guidelines to follow, but a lot of fans to please. It felt like an ending. Not the most satisfying, but good nonetheless.

Review: Nelson edited by Rob Davies and Woodrow Phoenix

I want to start by saying that Nelson, a Black Slate Books publication edited by Rob Davies and Woodrow Phoenix, is an interesting idea, but I don’t want to come across as too negative on this point. I enjoyed it quite a lot, although the format has some limits. There isn’t really a plot, but there is an idea. That idea is that, through a series of short comics written and drawn by different UK comics artists, a picture of a life could emerge. Each of the fifty-four contributors contributes a year, from 1968 to 2011, with an additional February 29th every leap year.

While I wouldn’t say the quality fluctuates, often the interest can. Also, as there was a five-page limit for each of the contributors, some of the parts feel too short, and limited in scope, despite the life-long scope of the whole endeavour. There are themes which span her entire life, some of which shift into the background and some which emerge much later on. Characters come and go, and while I recommend reading it quite slowly (to get an idea of the time passing) it is also a good idea to keep checking back or making sure you remember who is who.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the comic is the portrait of the eras through which it spans. Nel grows up in the 70s, goes to college in the 80s, and is a mature(-ish) adult in the early 00s. This part is one of the more interesting for me, because some of the historical events which I can remember have their place in the story. For the earlier sections it is interesting to see how attitudes change, and how the social history of Britain could have affected an individual.

The biggest problem is perhaps the lack of a story. Themes are picked up by some artists, dropped by others, and can disappear completely. Of course, over forty-four years this can only be expected. Events of a person’s childhood both may and may not continue to affect their lives forever afterwards. Friends grow apart, and come back together.

As I began: it is interesting. It is affecting and effective, too. With a little more time I think I will want to explore these artists a little more (those who I don’t already know, as I love Bad machinery). Definitely worth a look!

Keep Singing, Halo Jones!

The Ballad of Halo Jones – Alan Moore and Ian Gibson

Where did she go? Out. What did she do? Everything

Last week I read the 2000 AD comic book The Ballad of Halo Jones written by Alan Moore with art by Ian Gibson. While this was the first 2000 AD comic book I’ve ever read (I haven’t even seen the film of Judge Dredd) I’m more than familiar with the work of Alan Moore*, and, it transpired, I have read a book with art by Ian Gibson, Boba Fett: Enemy of the Empire. I don’t recall enjoying his art quite as much then as I did in Halo Jones, however. Perhaps it was because this was a world of his own imagining, not a version of an already familiar universe (as, at the time, I would have been very familiar with the Star Wars universe).

It transpires that you don’t actually have to know anything about the “2000 AD universe”, as no such universe exists. Halo Jones is a unique, solitary story in an amazing, detailed world, where the human race has colonized the galaxy long enough ago that some of the original colonists have evolved due to the extreme gravity on their planet. The world of Halo Jones is so fully realised by its creators that it even has a future, a few millennia hence, in which Halo Jones has become a figure of historical interest. This opening to Book 2, of which I was wary at first but which has become warmly remembered, is a wonderful bit of storytelling. All it reveals is that the future of Halo Jones will be interesting, and worth reading. Well, of course. Book One was great, Two and Three continue the trend. If only there had been the chance for some more**. . .

Halo is a great character, growing over the decade-and-a-bit in which the books are set, but remaining determined and forceful, despite her apparent lack of control over her own future. While it could hardly be said that she has a great deal of freedom, she makes all of her choices herself, even if coerced by circumstance. The roster of secondary characters is also good, Toby the robot dog is a particular favourite (especially for his artwork), and “Lucky” Mona Jukes. Which isn’t to say that this is character-based: the world of the Hoop, and Moab, the world with ridiculously strong gravity, are detailed and brilliant creations. Good stories with good characters in good settings: perfect.

It says something about the reputation of Alan Moore that no-one seems to blame him that Halo Jones wasn’t able to continue exploring the universe. I haven’t read fully the details of the story, but it’s on the wikipedia page of the book, and I just scanned over it whilst getting that link. It seems as if Moore was on the side of right, probably, but could easily be cast as greedy and unworkable, demanding too much from the publishers than they could give. I like Moore, so I’m willing to side with him, but you do have to wonder if, for example, Ian Gibson wasn’t a bit disappointed when the falling out occurred.

The Ballad of Halo Jones ends well enough that I’m happy, and no story arcs appear to be left open; unlike many other examples of series cancelled before their time. You could almost believe that this was it, such is the nature of the story of Halo, which is more an exploration of her and her world than a continuing narrative. This means that it is certainly worth reading, and not disappointing or unfulfilling. If I hadn’t discovered that 2000 AD stories are set in many different worlds I would have definitely gone out of my way to read some more; as it stands now I would like to do so, if I were given some pointers and recommendations.

* And I even met the man:

He even signed my copy of V for Vendetta 🙂

** Or even, “Moore” ho ho ho.